The Legacy of War: Unearthing Laotian history, hope and healing

Nhien Nguyen May 15, 2006 0

For Laotian-American Channapha Khamvongsa, there have been few opportunities for her to learn about Laos and the circumstances that brought her to America some 30 years ago.

Now, as founder and project director of “Legacies of War,” Khamvongsa explores her homeland’s past through raw, stark illustrations and narratives collected between 1970 and 1971 in the Vientiane refugee camps. These illustrations depicting the stories of survivors of U.S. bombings in Laos will premier in Seattle on May 13, kicking off a seven-city national tour.

Khamvongsa discovered these illustrations only three years ago, after a chance meeting with its keeper for over 25 years, John Cavanagh. While working at the Ford Foundation, she discovered that Cavanagh has worked at the Indochina Resource Center in the 1970s. When the office had closed down, Cavanagh came across the illustrations. In spring 2004, John turned over the illustrations to Khamvongsa, with hopes that she would “do something with them.”

The Legacies of War project was born out of the chance meeting, providing Khamvongsa’s life mission. Her organization educates the public about her homeland, namely the continuing impact of the CIA’s secret war in Laos from 1964 to 1973. The project presents startling facts about the war, such as the 80 million anti-personnel cluster bombs that were dropped on Laos during 500,000 U.S. bombing missions.

With one bomb dropped every nine minutes for 10 years, Laos holds the dubious distinction as the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. Over 2 million tons of ordinance was dropped on Laos—more than the amount used in the entire World War II—representing an average of 1,500 pounds for every person living there during that time period, according to Voice of America news.

“How come we didn’t learn about this in history class?” Khamvongsa wonders.

The illustrations, which are part of Legacies of War’s awareness project to be displayed at ArtXchange in Pioneer Square, bring home the emotional reality of the lives affect by the war.

The sad part is that the legacy of war continues today, say Khamvongsa. Many of the cluster bombs did not explode on impact. As a result, hundred of Laotians are killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance or UXOs. Today, 35 percent of Laos’ surface area is affected by UXOs, according to Landmine Monitor.

“Today, Laotian children, who weren’t even born at the end of the bombings, remain victims of war because they are maimed and killed by unexploded bombs dropped over three decades ago,” said Khamvongsa in a press release. “This inhumane legacy must end.”

Khamvongsa hopes that the exhibit will raise awareness about the cluster bombs, also known as “bombies.” The current reports are astonishing: Two or three Laotians are killed every month and another six or seven are maimed by UXOs, according to USA Today. Since 1973, 5,700 Laotians have been killed and 5,600 injured by UXOs.

The goal of Legacy of War is to raise awareness about the issues related to the unexplored ordinance in Laos and provide a forum for the Laotian community to share their voices and experiences. Khamvongsa believes the project is extremely relevant, in light of the nation’s current war in Iraq.

“The project links the story of Laos and its experience of war to a bigger conversation of the legacy of war,” says Khamvongsa.

Cora Edmonds, artistic director of ArtXchange, has been very supportive of the project, as this part of the world is “close to her heart.” Her art gallery, which opens into its brand new space during the premiere of the Lao exhibit, forms partnerships to educate people about where the art comes from and the history and culture of the community.

“It’s more than just an art exhibit,” says Edmonds, who recently returned from a trip to Laos.

Edmonds has been impressed by the Laotian community’s response to the issue.

“It shows how much they care about their history and roots,” says Edmonds.

Younger Lao Americans, like Seattle’s Sakuna Thongchanh, have embraced the project.

“It’s a chance to explore my history and the reason why my family and I came to the U.S. in this concrete historical way,” says Thongchanh.

Though Thongchanh has taken a personal interest in the project by becoming the local lead for the organization, she knows that there is some hesitancy within the Laotian community on dealing with the issue. “[The war] has affected people so deeply, they can’t share how they feel.”

Talking about the past can be a painful experience. “Some people want peace and they don’t want to talk about it,” says Thongchanh, adding that there are sensitivities with those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

“The younger generation wants to explore the past and move forward” says Thongchanh.

The Legacies of War project, Khamvongsa says, will engage the Laotian community, especially the younger generation, in creating a greater hope for future peace.

ArtXchange Gallery opening and National Premier of the “Legaxies of War” Preview Exhibition takes place Saturday, May 13 from 6:30—10 p.m. Featuring: historic drawings by bombing survivors, Laotian silk weavings and paintings, special guest speakers and Laotian appetizers, music and beverages. The event benefits the national fund-raising campaign to develop a museum exhibition to raise awareness of the Vietnam War-era U.S. bombings in Laos and its harmful effects on local villagers today.

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